Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

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Collaborative Joy

This post hails from the beautiful sun-drenched, ocean-breeze kissed, ever-friendly land of California. The kids and I are temporarily “home,” and aside from a nasty head cold and the absence of the patriarch of our little family (thank you for staying in Milan to work, Tyler, so that we can have this wonderful life! We miss you!), life is good!

One particular manifestation of that goodness occurred yesterday, thanks to the creative thinking of Papa. He suggested a surprise trip for the kids to one of the local outdoor malls. Not to buy anything (other than ice cream), but rather to play in the amazing walk-in water feature that was apparently designed expressly for the purpose of delighting children on hot days. The “water feature,” for lack of a better term, consists of one central fountain/statue with a waterfall flowing down the back, surrounded by 30 or 35 grill-covered water-spouts that shoot up sprays of alternating heights for the pleasure/soaking of the children running over them.

My first thought as we approached this phenomenon of child-entertainment, contemporaneous with the delighted squeals of my children, was that this must be the greatest idea ever! The evidence of at least 40 children (ranging in age from approximately 18 months to 12 years) giggling and shrieking with delight quickly confirmed this initial assessment. When I noticed the designated “stroller parking” in a specially designed niche, the experience was complete. I was really home! I was back in a land where families are expected to do things together, and where, as a consequence, public space designers don’t devote their attention exclusively to one age group or the other. Not only can I look forward to nearly 4 weeks in which every restaurant I go to will have a children’s menu, and almost all public restrooms will have baby changing facilities (we don’t need them any more, but I still consider this a sign of advanced civilization), but even the shopping malls have made a supreme effort to balance the needs of children and parents. Looking around I completely understood the indulgent, relaxed smiles of the accompanying parents and grandparents lounging on the abundant supply of chairs surrounding the play area. This was a good experience for them, not just their children. They could sit in the shade watching the little ones’ delight in a context that didn’t require a separate trip and an expenditure of entertainment cash. They could divide their time – one adult staying to supervise while another stopped into a shop to make a purchase. I imagine at least one of the solo parents in evidence had probably negotiated whine-free shopping time with the kiddos: “If you can give Mommy 15 minutes to try on shoes, we’ll play in the water fountain before we go home.” Although there was no evidence of it that day, the parents could even join in if they so wished. In fact, when we go back, I think I just might!

For my American readers, this soliloquy might seem a trifle exaggerated, so perhaps I should explain. Two days before departing on this visit I received a survey from an English-speaking mom’s group in Milan. The survey was trying to collect information on baby/toddler/child-friendly resources in the area. The survey listed nine categories for which they were collecting information, and I struggled to produce answers for even four. For example: “restaurants offering healthy children’s menus” — well, since the only restaurant I have ever encountered in Italy that offers any children’s menu is McDonalds, and I don’t think Happy Meals qualify as healthy… sorry. “Restaurants that are otherwise child-friendly — including high chairs, play cots, diaper-changing facilities, etc.” — we have sort of re-adjusted our definition of child-friendly since moving to Milan. That now means restaurants that understand to bring out the children’s plate of pasta in bianco (plain pasta, no sauce) as soon as it is ready and that don’t give you dirty looks about the excess noise and mess that accompanies young children. “Facilities that provide private space for breastfeeding mothers” — I used to get strange looks for covering myself with a nursing wrap while breastfeeding in public because most mothers just whip it out … there is no perceived need for a private space. I have accepted the differences about how things are done in my new home, but I am still aware that my American assumption that we will do most things together as a family (rather than leaving the children with a sitter or the grandparents when I go out) means that the world we go out to will not be precisely designed to meet our needs. I can live with it, but it is oh, so nice to experience the alternative. So, in keeping with the patriotic theme of this particular week in the year, I LOVE AMERICA!

The gush of appreciation that welled up in my soul as I settled into my chair, however, was followed immediately by a surge of anxiety. If my quick guesstimate was right, there were significantly more children running around the water fountain than there were spouting water jets. This was a recipe for conflict. I braced for the inevitable collision when two tikes made for the same spurt of aquatic fun, or the cry of complaint that “the girl in the pink isn’t sharing!” In their natural state, children have this tendency to be selfish hedonists. We, as parents, try to moderate this intrinsic quality, but that effort takes years of consistent struggle. I was certain that we would have a problem within five minutes of entering the fun zone.

But the minutes passed and I heard nothing but laughter and exclamations of excitement from my children. Five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes, and no disputes. My anxiety slowly ebbed into incredulous amazement. There was no fighting. It wasn’t just my two little devilish angels. NONE of the children were fighting! They were just running and jumping and waving their arms wildly through the spray, and miraculously NOT hitting each other! In fact, in nearly an hour of water play I observed only a single glancing collision and one mild confrontation. The Gigglemonster had gone to investigate the reason that three children were standing crouched over a temporarily dormant geyser, and “the boy in the Lightening McQueen pants” had apparently told him to mind his own business. He shared this indignity with me, and then went back to playing. That was it!

If by nothing else I was flabbergasted by the apparent spatial awareness being displayed by my two little ones. I have been toiling literally for years to try to adequately explain the concept of not pushing past people when you are in a confined space (i.e. – when exiting an elevator, walking on the stairs, going through a door, etc.). We have talked about courtesy & kindness; we have evaluated the unnecessary nature of injuries that sometimes result; we have applied the Golden Rule and Jesus’ teaching on “the last shall be first” (that’s the only thing that has made any discernible impact so far, and it’s usually followed by a proclamation that “I’m really first, because the last shall be first.”). Despite all my parenting efforts, they still seem oblivious to the space being occupied by other people’s bodies when they have a destination in sight. And yet, in that chaotic context where their entire attention seems riveted on the water spurting from the ground, I saw my children flawlessly veering from their set trajectory to avoid a collision, and even pausing in their headlong race to allow another child to cross their path. This was nothing short of miraculous!

Then, disaster! The water spurts stopped. For some reason (likely water conservation, given the drought) the sprays shooting up from the ground took a break, leaving the horde of water-mad children with only the single waterfall flowing down the back of the statue. As the elimination of their amusement dawned in their disappointed faces I anticipated the mad rush of squirming, slippery little bodies endeavoring to claim their spot under the one remaining flow. I perched on the edge of my seat, ready to jump up and rush to the rescue if the scrum produced casualties. But, my vigilance was unnecessary. A good number of children abandoned the game now that the geysers had disappeared, but around 25 remained, gathered in the general vicinity of the waterfall, and then… took turns!

Again, perhaps my expectations have been a bit jaded by my last two+ years in the land of the anti-queue. I have become accustomed to the expectation that a new register opening at the grocery store immediately draws shoppers in inverse relationship to how long they have been waiting – since those at the end of the line can most quickly and easily shove their carts into the new line. I have learned that the only way to prevent new arrivals from jumping ahead of me in the line to enter the subway car with my stroller (and then plant themselves squarely in my way as I try to maneuver through the narrow opening) is to ram that wheeled conveyance into their shins or run it over their toes.  I have drawn too many blank stares when I have attempted to politely suggest that people respect the line of people waiting to weigh their produce rather than just shouldering their way to the front. Italy has cost me my faith in the sacredness of the line.

But, even in America, to see such polite and considerate group behavior from a mass of frolicking children?! That really seemed amazing. And so, as I watched my suddenly considerate offspring waiting patiently for their dousing, and then quickly moving out to provide space for the next child, I pondered the motivation for this consideration. I found it in their smiles.

JOY! I was watching a group of children bursting and bubbling with joy. And this joy melted away the petulant selfishness that too often mars the faces of those from one to 92. The fun was too marvelous to be spoiled by bickering and shoving for position. Much better to watch the enjoyment of their peers and build their own anticipation of how fun it would be to dunk themselves under the spray. What is more, the children weren’t looking out for number one and the rest be damned, because the rest were part of their joy. The water sprays would have been fun if Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster were the only children present, but they were much more fun with everyone else. The joy was contagious, it was exponential. Each squeal of delight from one child drew an echo from two or three others. They were reveling in the group experience and in that joy they found unity.

That realization was sweet with just a tinge of sadness. Clearly, our world is in great need of more unity. From the wars that ravage too many countries to list, to the economic exploitation and crisis that mar nearly every life on the planet, to the renewed anger and name-calling that have been stoked by last week’s historic Supreme Court decisions, we are a broken and divided species. I try to protect my little ones from that truth to a large degree, but the truth is that some of their playmates from yesterday will eventually land on the other side of some issue or resource that they hold dear, and then where will be the joy?

And so, I have written this story as a reminder to myself, and to them, of what they are capable of. I hope I will remember to pull this out when life is no longer so simple for them and they are struggle to know how to love their enemies. The child with whom they have to share the water is not really an enemy, and yet in knowing how to share their joy with this playmate, they are demonstrating their understanding of the ultimate unity of humanity. We are all better off, we share more joy, when we see the needs of others as well as our own, and work together to meet all needs. True joy is not maximizing one’s own joy. True joy is sharing it.

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Sharing with a little one

Sharing with a little one

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"It says 'No Climbing'!" Princess Imagination is so proud that she can read!

“It says ‘No Climbing’!” Princess Imagination is so proud that she can read!

families welcome!

families welcome!

"My bum is all wet!"

“My bum is all wet!”

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Speaking of shame

It had been a while since I posted. This is not for lack of potential content. Actually the last month and more has been full of experiences that fulfill the potential of this European adventure to expose me to reflection-inspiring ideas. However, it turns out that the life that inspires writing actually takes a lot of time to live. Funny how that works. Now that my travel schedule and language training is taking a bit of a break, I have (at least in theory) a little more time to reflect on what I have been learning. Which has brought me to reflect on how this recent phase of frenetic activity started with my long-delayed return to formal learning: Italian classes.

Learning a new language, especially this beautiful latin tongue, was one of the many wonderful promises of our expatriate assignment. I studied spanish for 6 years in jr. high and high school, but while I did relatively well in class I never spoke with fluency. The ability to actually speak, not just stutter through basic requests, but to speak and think easily in another language has been a long-time dream. Since virtually all experts agree that immersion is the only efficient way to obtain such facility in adulthood, I moved to Italy full of expectation. As I have reflected in an earlier post (Mother Tongue and Limited Proficiency), all has not gone as easily as I expected. Simply being surrounded by the language is not sufficient in and of itself to produce facility with an unfamiliar language.

Perhaps an example can best illustrate my point. Immersion allows a language learner to repeatedly hear common phrases as they occur in daily conversation. Unfortunately, hearing a phrase over and over only embeds it in your brain when you can accurately hear the pronunciation. “Va bene” (roughly translated as “it’s good” or “OK” although the literal translation is “it goes well”)  sounds very much like “fa bene” when you are still learning italian pronunciation. Moreover, “fa bene” could very well be a perfectly reasonable phrase for all sorts of situations, because “fa” is the third person, singular, present tense of fare and fare is the most ubiquitous word in the Italian language. The dictionary definitions for fare fill up three-quarters of a page and include meanings as diverse as “do”, “make”, “build”, “be”, “manage”, and “act”  among many others. When first learning Italian it seems like “fare” is without limit in its applications, and the fact that you hear “_a bene” twenty times a day in all kinds of situations seems to match well with this versatility. I do not know how many times I said “fa bene” in my first months here before my husband was kind enough to correct me. To accurately learn a new language one needs more than just exposure – one also need instruction that can prevent the embarrassment of mis-learning.

Despite the mental fog brought on by the endless permutations of “fare,” however, I have approached my language acquisition task with gusto. For more than 19 months I consulted my Italian-English dictionary, drilled with written verb and grammar exercises, and compiled questions for my language exchange partners in my efforts to learn the language. But mostly, I just dove in and tried it. I knew I was making many, many, mistakes, but my other alternatives were worse: either simply staying silent, or speaking excruciatingly slowly as I stopped to conjugate every verb and to figure out the gender and number of each noun to assign the appropriate article. I just kept trying, mistakes and all, and looked forward to the day when I would finally have the child-free time to take real lessons and kick-start my fluency.

My first activity in my very first Italian class was a reading/conversation activity. We were given a list of statements in Italian that presented opinions about the necessary tools and activities for learning a foreign language. We were supposed to read them all, pick the three with which we most agreed and discuss our selections with a partner, in Italian, of course. The statements were all written in very absolute language (i.e. – “it is impossible to learn a foreign language after the age of 18″; or “the most important thing is to read something every day”). As a result, I only completely agreed with one statement of the ten, the contention that (in my rough translation) “it is better to try to speak even if you make mistakes.” This had certainly been my experience in the prior 19 months. My italian language experience to that date could be fairly accurately described as an extended exercise in “speaking even if you make mistakes.” While I believed this was important to the learning process, however, I was hoping to move beyond this phase now that I was in a formal Italian course.

Looking back over the past 8 weeks since I began my course, the unreasonableness of that expectation seems as obvious as the parallel pipe dream of fluency through “immersion.” Of course a mere 45 hours of classroom instruction were not sufficient to transform me into an easy bilingual conversationalist. Of course I could not decipher the complicated formulas of Italian grammatical structure through 1 hour lessons on roughly 15 specific grammatical topics. Of course the mistakes I made blithely for 19 months of halting speech in my new adopted language would not simply disappear once I finally got formal help to “learn Italian.” It just is not that easy. I was recently informed by an American acquaintance who has lived in Italy for 20 years that Italian still does not feel natural — and that is with the help of an Italian husband and a bilingual daughter.

But here is the irony: the one statement I agreed with about learning a new language is less comfortable to me now than it was that first day that I stepped into the classroom. On an intellectual level I can agree that you have to just speak and not worry about making mistakes, but I am just tired of making them. What is worse, now that I have a little instruction under my belt, I am more aware of making them. Where before I would chatter away blithely ignoring the subjunctive tense, now I am paralyzed every time I begin a phrase by introducing uncertainty (“I think that…”, We hoped that…” etc.) because I now know that I need to conjugate the following verb as congiuntivo and I cannot remember how to form the verbs. Where before the versatile pronoun/participle “ci” was just another baffling mystery of the Italian language, now it is a a very unnatural part of speech (to a native English speaker) that I nevertheless feel that I should be able to use, and use correctly.

There is another memorable moment from my first day of class: I learned the word vergogna. At first I thought it meant embarrassment, because in the Italian-only context of the class where everything must be learned from context, this seemed the most appropriate translation. When I later looked it up however, I learned that the more precise translation is shame. Whether used to substitute for embarrassment or shame, the word has been painfully relevant in the weeks that have followed.

At the suit shop when we are buying Tyler’s new suit I deliberately interaction with the salesman in English. I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to discuss cuts and fit in Italian and as an international company I know the staff speak English. At the end of an extended conversation he learns that we are not visiting; we actually live in Milano. “Oh, how long do you leeve here?” (English is not easy for him, you see) “Almost 2 years.” I feel vergogna that I have demanded this interaction be conducted in English, when it is now obvious to him that I have far less excuse than he does for my difficulty in my non-native tongue.

I meet the mothers of the Gigglemonster’s classmates and I try valiantly to converse with them in Italian. They are patient with me, and listen politely while I struggle, and stammer — a direct result of my new-found consciousness about just how poor my Italian really is. They make a point of calling me over to their group as we wait outside the gate for school pick-up to begin and they do their best to include me in their developing friendships. But they chatter away in Italian, talking over each other and exclaiming dramatically, true to all the classic Italian stereotypes, and I stand there in silence, able to follow only part of what is being said, and feeling like an outsider. I am wishing there were a polite way that I could just stand alone to avoid the embarrassment of my incompetence, and I feel vergogna for this response to their friendliness.

I snap back in response to my wonderful mother-in-law’s effort to encourage me about just how well I am learning Italian. Twenty months of frustration and embarrassment and loneliness come gushing out as I deliver an impromptu lecture about the difficulties of struggling with language every day. She doesn’t understand; she doesn’t hear all the mistakes I make and how humiliating they are; for her Italian is a fun exercise while for me it is a necessary tool that I do not wield as well as I need to in order to function in my daily life. She is as gracious in receiving this undeserved outburst as she is in everything else, but again I feel vergogna. I have received her kindness and support with recrimination rather than gratitude, and that is something of which to be ashamed in any language.

Shame is not a comfortable emotion. I have had moments in the past few months were I began to long for this experience to just be over. I began to anticipate the luxury of living in an environment where I speak the language better, not worse, than most people I meet. I began to dream of escape from days punctuated by embarrassment, and the shameful light that embarrassment casts on my own lack of maturity. As the limits of even intensive study have killed my dream of easy fluency I have wanted to throw up my hands and say “what’s the point? I am leaving in a year anyhow. Why keep struggling?”

But the answer is that there is a lesson in shame, if I will only learn it. If I abandon my efforts and resign myself to the shame, then it really has been pointless. All the study, and the effort, and the embarrassment will have borne no fruit in my life. I will not speak Italian well, and, even more importantly, my understanding of myself will not have been transformed by this experience. BUT. If I keep trying even when it is frustrating and difficult, I will have learned that I can do things even when I do them poorly. I do not like doing things poorly. It is not comfortable. But it is also NOT shameful. To continue to try, to make mistakes and not give up, to be the slowest person in the conversation and keep trying to participate; that is something to be proud of.

Up until very recently when people ask me if I speak Italian, or when Italian friends assert that I do speak Italian, my response has been embarrassed denial. “No, no, no. Non davvero. Not really.” But I recently realized something. The very first Italian phrase I learned, before even moving to Italy, was  “non parlo bene l’italiano” – “I do not speak Italian well.” From the very first days of my residency here I have been using this phrase to apologize when I do not understand something said to me, or to explain why I am speaking so slowly, or thinking of the right thing to say. I do not say “non parlo italiano” – ” I do not speak Italian.” I say “non parlo bene.” And that is true. I don’t speak well. But I do speak Italian. And that is quite an accomplishment.

I speak Italian poorly, and there is no shame in that.